Terry Eagan - Faux Bois Craftsman
Interview with Terry Eagan
By Erin Blagman (his apprentice)
Q: How did you first become interested in Faux Bois?
A: I discovered it as a very small kid, from examples in my neighborhood. We lived on a slope, and I can remember pulling my wagon to the top of the block to get a roll down the sidewalk, and noticing the sidewalk changes to “boardwalk” with log curbs, driveways, hand rails, stairs, stump planters, concrete mushrooms, benches, water features, etc. that unify a group of eight Bungalows. That’s where I played “hide and seek”. It was all overgrown and I just loved it.
Q: Where did you grow up? How did your childhood impact your job now?
A: I grew up in Sierra Madre, just a few miles from the Huntington on the East edge of Pasadena, at the foot of Mt. Wilson. As I grew through elementary school in the sixties, I would point out more examples of sculpted concrete at Disneyland...Tom Sawyers Island, the Swiss Family Robinson Tree-house, and was drawn to the rides that would give me a view over the construction fence so that I could see how they were building fake rock and anything else.
When I was 14, we moved to another property in Sierra Madre, and the back yard was filled with faux bois and concrete fish ponds. I can remember making repairs back then on the foot of a bench with a cardboard juice can, peeling it off the next day and adding troweled bark. I was drawn to all types of art, but most enjoyed mastering realism whether drawing, painting, or whittling.
Q: What jobs did you have leading up to working at the Huntington?
A: After graduating high school (where I had worked on scenery for the stage) I decided the best direction for me was not producing fine art for galleries, but something more commercial: I studied sign painting and billboard production at Pasadena City College. This was a trade class in what looked like a creative business at the time. As the computer revolutionized that industry in the mid-eighties, I turned the faux-finishes and color-matching skills that made my signs unique, into the focus of my endeavor. I began to specialize in what the computer can not do. This became my new practice of restoration: a Movie Palace, a Cathedral, and other fancy public buildings of the kind we won’t build again. Keeping the skills of our grandfathers alive, while restoring their work became my new passion.
As I never forgot the charm of faux bois concrete, I would occasionally work it into a design if it was new work & I had the chance. I developed my own techniques of working with mortar, fiberglass reinforcing and acrylic additives after collaborating on job-sites with other tradesmen. During a lull between commissions and freelancing in scenery shops in Seattle in the nineties, I decided to create a faux bois suite: a love-seat bench, three-legged “bentwood” chairs, and a “slab table” in order to bring it to a gallery that specialized in garden art. I thought perhaps I could create a market for it since I had figured out ways to make it both durable and less than half the weight of the pieces I had grown up with.
No one wanted to buy it...although it was shown in several galleries. I don’t believe I had the marketing skills (or the budget)to find a way that would create demand for an “antique technique” of hand-crafted “rustic-wood” concrete. In the era of unparalleled “dot-com” wealth...I was in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
We left Seattle at the turn of the millennium to move back to my hometown, Sierra Madre. On an outing a few years later I rediscovered the faux bois at The Huntington and saw the decaying state it was in. I asked a docent about the “concrete trees” and was told that they were in decay because they were very old and there was no one who knew the craft anymore. They would just have to love them as ruins, because no one in the Botanical Department could bear to remove something so charming from Mr. Huntington’s day. When I replied I may know someone that could help them, I was given the number of the Director of the Gardens, Jim Folsom, and I was encouraged to “...have your friend call, we’ve been looking for someone that knows something about this stuff for decades.”
After our initial meeting, it was emails for many years. Undaunted, I stayed in touch, and finally began work in 2010 with the wave of resources being directed at restoring the Japanese Garden as it would turn 100 years old in 2012.
Q: Do you have any good stories about how you came to find the tools you use? (Pastry bags, nails, etc…)
A: Pastry bags, well, there are grout bags in “the trade” that uses grout, so swapping that for something disposable wasn’t too big a leap. Neither are brushes and scrubbers, really anything you can drag and leave an impression, of any sort,... combs, saw-blades, you name it, it’s all fair game. The trick is learning when to leave it alone. For me, the work becomes wood while I’m pushing mud around. Learning when to not touch it anymore, that “yes” moment, when more people than I will think it looks like wood.
In the early weeks of the project, I remained baffled at how the original craftsman created the pattern of bark. As I experimented with several things, the pastry bag was getting me the closest to duplicating it’s “regular” pattern, but I was sure it was not how it was originally done. Perhaps he could have had a grout bag then, but I’m still missing something to get a good match. Just how did he do it?
I had some random bits I had removed from the site in my car, and while waiting at a stoplight, noticed a distinctive “T” shape in the edge view/cross section. I bought a box of roofing nails, since only the head of a nail could make that pattern…! IT WAS GAME ON! I had unlocked a ninety-year-old secret! My bark patterns now matched perfectly. Other “discoveries” for tools: a baby fork, a plastic hair brush rotated around an axis to make “growth rings”—these things pale by comparison to a simple roofing nail.
Q: Do you consider your work art?
A: An interesting question that I’m content to let the observer decide. Art being something too subjective or fickle as to individual taste to be determined. I think Diego Rivera said “I’m content to let history decide, I just paint walls.”
I will say it is definitely sculpture, given that every inch of it is hand-tooled to be as you find it. Because it’s sculpted of concrete, this does not take away from it’s being hand-crafted. There is no repetition, no mold-making or forms, no casting, or trees involved. It was a popular folk-craft at the time of it’s creation, (probably at its most popular in the 1920’s) even millionaires had to have something rustic in the time of Will Rodgers, the most successful entertainer of that era.
I think Mr. Huntington himself probably picked a craftsman (we don’t know his name) on the basis of the best sample that was produced for him. Something to closely match the real Oak arbors that were created for the Japanese Garden’s Wisteria in 1912. This craftsman may have worked past Huntington’s lifetime to complete the vision he shared with William Hertrich, his Garden Designer/ Estate Supervisor
To answer your question: I don’t identify myself as an artist, but a craftsman, in the brotherhood of those people without names, that built castles and cathedrals 500 years ago. They left behind some fine public art without getting individual credit, but as part of a team. I’m part of Mr. Huntington’s team, doing a dance with another sculptor across time to be in rhythm with his work. I’m carrying on their vision. My satisfaction comes from knowing that the work Mr. Huntington wanted us all to enjoy will be able to live on for perhaps hundreds of years, as he intended. The arbors are just one piece of a much larger whole... and my contribution is small in the larger context of Huntington’s vision.
Does my work count more than a tree pruned properly, or a page properly mended? A painting properly cleaned, or a monument properly cared for? The best compliment to this collection is that you don’t notice it one way or the other. It’s not meant to call attention to itself, but to blend with nature. It doesn’t want to be sculpture, it wants you to enjoy the plants growing on it. In my view, it could be more personal to Mr. Huntington than the art suggested to him that was purchased through a dealer. It’s what he wanted here. I call it the largest sculpture on the grounds, even though we don’t know the names of it’s craftsmen. But that’s just me, and my aesthetic. I simply love it.
Q: This project has serious conservation/restoration implications because of your unique ability to alter anything you please, how do you find the balance between respecting the original craftsman who made the trees and your individual work?
A: Because the work is somewhat organic in its nature, I feel it’s meant to mimic something (wood) that has no direct match. We don’t have the name of the original craftsmen (more than one). Since it is not attributed to a particular artists “body of work”, or that of a famous studio, I feel at license to be only as good as the best work found in the whole, and work to bring the rest of the collection up to that level. There are examples of another craftsman doing a style that is more primitive that I call the work of the "Apprentice". As I repair the whole collection, I feel a responsibility to honor the style of the "Master" that is more realistic and is consistent through 85 of the total 100 trees. Both have the same failures in their construction. Ultimately, the "apprentices" simplified style will be hidden under new work with realistic techniques from the Master, making the whole collection the same "species".
Q: How are you ensuring that the “trees” will not decay as they have before?
A: The problems that they have are from air pockets, or cavities that were part of the original construction techniques or have developed as a result of those techniques. They started with steel square stock that was twisted as it was manufactured. This increased the strength of the metal and provides a "lock" with the concrete (today provided by "barbs" or deformations). This armature of “reinforcing bar” (rebar) supported “cages” of expanded steel (mesh) that created the shapes and would be filled with “wads” of a stiff/dry mixture of concrete. It would be dry enough to not spill out of this cage (unlike fluid pours of concrete used today into more substantial forms). This practice was flawed because it would leave air pockets or cavities that can trap water. Over time, as the concrete absorbs moisture, the voids becomes "pools" of water that will rust the steel it is in contact with. The areas of decay are like the old car in a lake. The steel continues to absorb water, and as it rusts, it expands and weakens the concrete. Where the concrete does fail, it is like the old car in the desert. As moisture dries out, it pulls the finest minerals with it (calcium carbonate- a "flowstone" like a stalagmite). This moving calcium is collected around the steel essentially coating it, and succeeds in pulling the moisture out of the steel so it not subjected to decay. I tap on the surface listening for the hollow sounds that reveal the voids. Then I remove as much material as I can, uncovering cavities that allow the water to collect, leaving the "sound" material that has not decayed. After treating the rusting steel with practices used in auto body shops to "arrest" it (chemicals like phosphoric acid and zinc “cold-galvanizing” primer), I fasten new galvanized mesh which will support my wet acrylic fortified mortar. As this is applied, I pound the surface with a coarse scrub brush which pushes the mortar through the new mesh and into the pores of the old, now treated surface. This step remedies the problem of air voids that started the decay and the treated steel should now be at less risk.
Q: What would you hope to happen if they did decay and someone new had to come and restore them?
A: I hope they have the tenacity to find the flaws I missed and the science to correct any failure I might have left for them to discover. At the very least, they will have my insight and discoveries as a departure point. The work from this moment on is “on-the-record”. Mr. Huntington’s faux bois collection will never be written off because the skills are lost. They will only need to be practiced.
Q: Does faux bois have any environmental sustainability?
A: The first arbors in the Japanese garden were constructed with real Oak which would have been replaced with the same material many times by now and would continue to need replacing. We have concrete from the days of the Romans that still functions as it was designed (no steel that contributes to its decay). I have no doubt that uses for concrete will continue to evolve. As more artisans look for ways to “make their mark” permanent, and working with hot kilns for glass or pottery production continue to get squeezed by expensive resources, I expect more innovation and creativity to continue to push new boundaries for concrete. We see it now with concrete sinks and counter tops in the kitchen. There are ways to make it lighter with pumice aggregates, and new developments in cement production, concrete mixtures, additives and placement practice that are making it stronger and more resistant to moisture and freeze/thaw failures. Hand-crafted faux bois and ferro-concrete is poised for a “comeback” as more people are drawn to it’s rustic charm in a high tech world.
Q: When do you hope to be done with your restoration at the Huntington?
A: It’s like dental work on a huge scale. You can’t tell what you are getting into until you “open it up” and find the extent of the decay. The more decay I can find, the less for future generations to deal with. It could be another year or two for the arbors. After that, there are other constructions of ferro-concrete on the grounds that need some love...elements of faux stone below the pond in the Japanese Garden, etc..... I’m kinda hoping they’ll keep me around.
I love this place.
Q: Are there any invaluable lessons that you’ve learned while working on-site at the Huntington?
A: Make your passion sustain your tenacity. If you give up too soon, you’ll never know what it could turn into.